Spotlight Story

23 August 2023

Héctor Varela: Leading the Way for Coastal Conservation in Puerto Rico

Category: Spotlight Story

Héctor Varela grew up in a rural community in Isabela, Puerto Rico. Closer to the mountains than the ocean, he always felt an innate connection to the water. As he recounts each one of his childhood memories, the conversation unfolds into an imaginary diagram of his tales, his roots, and community, and how he became one of the fiercest protectors of coastal ecosystems on the Northwest side of the island.

He grew up among farmers and landowners dependent on an irrigation system for water supply, built after the Second World War to move water across the rural communities.

“That’s where I had my first experience with water. I learned to swim in the canals and self-taught myself and my friends how to ‘surf’ using a rope and an old surfboard.”

His connection with his surroundings deepened as he grew surrounded by his grandmother, who had a special love for all things nature. After a while, he expanded his passion to the ocean, even though he rarely visited the coast growing up. During those visits, he learned about the famous dune desert on the coast of Isabela and how it was on the decline because of anthropogenic causes. When he learned the ecological wonders that reside in his town and how little protection was given to these, Héctor decided to act.

His commitment to empowering communities around sustainable practices and coastal conservation led him to organize a grassroots organization as an undergrad student. The organization aimed to protect the area's ecological value and set out over 18,000 plants across the coast. That organization evolved into a formal program with an established student chapter at the University of Puerto Rico, Aguadilla Campus. They led a movement that worked on dune and mangrove restoration, sea turtle monitoring, and ecological restoration overall.

After working in the private sector for several years, he landed an opportunity with the Surfrider Foundation, an organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world's oceans, waves, and beaches. As the Program Manager on the island, he has overseen the organization’s student chapters, and local initiatives aimed to establish sustainable practices with businesses and communities alike. It is through his advocacy work that he connected with the Hispanic Access Foundation.

“I was approached and received an invitation to be a part of the Olas y Acción Ocean Advisory Council, for which I was thrilled. I welcome every opportunity I receive to deliver the message around conservation.”

Thanks to that connection, Héctor participated in Capitol Hill Ocean Week 2023: “Ocean x Climate”, which deepened the relationship between climate change and the world's oceans. The conference took place in Washington, DC, and welcomed the participation of policymakers, scientists, scholars, businesses, and members of the public.

“It was my first time speaking to thousands of individuals, who gathered in person and online to hear about our perspectives. I spoke about the importance of federal action towards the numerous environmental issues taking place on Puerto Rico and the protection of the coastal ecosystems. It has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career, and I thank Hispanic Access Foundation for making that possible”.

For Latino Conservation Week, Héctor organized an experience that gathered students, members of fellow organizations, and the community in general. The activity took place at the Aguadilla Bay and included putting together an interpretive sign highlighting the ecological value of the zone, and a guided boat tour across the bay aimed at teaching participants about the marine wildlife of the region.

“I have seen the need for people to be proactive when it comes to learning about our ecosystems. Providing interpretive tools give the visitors key information about the region, and how to become better stewards for nature. I am here because God gifted me with talents to promote the protection of our ecosystems. We need more people to act and give a voice to the ocean, the dunes, the pelicans, the mangroves, and beyond. I’m not a scientist, but I have been working towards this goal for over 20 years, and I see myself doing so for the rest of my life for the sake of the planet.”

About Us

Hispanic Access Foundation connects Latinos and others with partners and opportunities to improve lives and create an equitable society.

Phone: (202) 640-4342

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

EEO Policy
  | FCOI Policy